In Greece in the mid-90s when I was there, plumbing lacked pressure and one could not as a rule flush tissue paper. Because of this the bidet was common. Paper was for drying, not for wiping excrement.
At the same time homes where I visited, both in Athens and in smaller towns like Markopoulo and villages like Derveni, still used rotary dial phones. However cell phones were ubiquitous.
This was an infrastructure leap.
Reading, and really, thinking, leaped in a like manner; going from rotary phones and low pressure plumbing (or outhouses) to cell phones and iPads and in the gap, become abyss, went the human mind.
Reading and writing were for most of human history and until quite recently elite activities. Even most of the kings on the kings list in Mesopotamia likely were not literate of the scribal wedges. It would be beneath a king to bother with the daily recording and accounting of small affairs.
Hence a class of literate men arose. And it really did remain a class “below” those with Power but above nearly everyone else.
You can see this vividly in the hierarchy of the church. And in the way the church “held” power to its hierarchical bosom by refusing for so long to translate the Bible into a “vulgar” tongue (anything not Latin, the language of learned men).
Once translated though, and printing becomes commonplace, knowledge may not literally be power, but it opens ones eyes to the world anew, to a literally new world; you may now address yourself directly to the Word.
Reading becomes a new form of thinking and imagining. Reading creates new people. But, reading is still not very common. Reading takes time and reading must be learned. We begin to see the rise of literature among leisure classes–men read philosophy, and then “natural philosophy” (what we call simply science–I like natural philosophy so much better, but that’s another thread); women read novels. Authors like George Eliot (a woman, Marian Evans) write novels that are heavily influenced by philosophy; Dickens, with Hard Times, begins to write novels that are extremely critical of industrialization and the life that evolves from it. These might be social science novels. Perhaps there is still a kind of gender split in reading habits although I would imagine that “fiction” is “in common” and that one might balance the Romance with Sci-Fi and offer that pistil and stamens equally enjoy True Crime and Mystery. Beats me. I’m making this up as I go.
This is all simple, oversimple, as I am sketching it, as sketches naturally leave much out.
But, what I’m getting to is that most people in the world and even most people in the industrialized, and now post-industrialized, world still would not have read much with any regularity if even the family Bible. Culture on the whole is still a product of voices in the street, home, church, playhouse and pub.
Even today UNICEF tells us that nearly 1/6th of the world’s people are illiterate with most of these being women. (A fun fact: in 1964 in Brazil Paulo Freire, renown and eminent educator, was arrested for teaching the peasants to read.)
But let’s consider simply the US: we can posit that we, in a willfully blind way, believe ourselves literate. Being proficient is another issue and any number of folks will tell you that literacy rates depend on definitions. Most will tell you that poverty equals illiteracy. Also, there is “elite” literacy as well, and figures for that are around 15%. This data comes out of the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) that I cherry-picked off the Wikipedia entry on Literacy in the United States.
We publish and buy a ridiculous number of books annually but of what quality, of what kind, of what content, of what style…
But more to my point, we put so many words in front of us that are produced with a singular intention–to capture your attention with little regard for what is truly being conveyed.
It would be hard to imagine that the people of the US read much more than magazines, newspapers and blogs related “incestuously” and commenting upon the content found in magazines and newspapers, and these related to and commenting upon other entertainment industry products. I would also hazard that most books read today are offered as written versions of our visual culture.
Books as Images not as Sounds.
The point is that we have made an infrastructure leap of great significance.
We’ve gone from Voice, to Print, to Image, to Mixed Media in a matter of seconds. We, on the whole, as a public, as a mass of people, had not learned how to properly think within those particular dynamic and immediate shifts in cultural production. We might argue that we had lived and learned how to hear things properly and in context and with real discernment. But I don’t think we can honestly say that of literature and certainly not of images. Images are akin to shorthand. Full of gaps in meaning that are elided by easily recognized depth-less symbols.
Books with ideas in them require time and intellectual (and often emotional) energy–a commitment to thought as a action. Consider too that it wasn’t much more than 200 years ago when you could likely, given a disciplined dedication, have read ALL of the major works of philosophy and history and science and they would have all simply been called “literature.” Consider too that it would be worth the time to dedicate some portion of your life and time to this pursuit even now. There are likely really not that many necessary books–perhaps a double-handful will cover the core of learning.
I have argued time and again that in reading books that are full of thinking we are learning across disciplines and we are learning how to examine humanity in its depth and breadth.
Instead we chatter, opine, watch XYZ, and chatter and opine on that. All the while having very little awareness of ourselves and our own minds. Who asks themselves, “why do I think that?” or “where did that idea come from?”?
If the book you’re reading hasn’t led you to address your own mind and its thoughts–it’s quite possibly doing you more harm than good.
Active thinking brought on a book (or any artful object) made of active thinking is a truly human way of being in time. Passivity in the face of language and imagery leads us to a kind of dog’s life of directed impulsivity.
Photo Credit: John Goode